You know the law allows you to sue for job and housing discrimination. But did you know it also gives you rights when you’re discriminated against in shopping or dining out? Being harassed or refused service by stores or restaurants might seem like a minor inconvenience. But if it’s happening to you, you might find it to be quite humiliating. This is especially true if the store or restaurant makes a scene to embarrass you in front of others.
I sue businesses for doing that when the improper treatment is because of my client’s race or ethnicity. I rely on the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law protects people of every race, although it was mainly intended to protect the civil rights of African-Americans following the end of the American Civil War in May 1865. This law was passed 11 months later, in April 1866. Most lawyers have never heard of it, and miss this excellent opportunity when advising victims of civil rights violations.
The key language in the law says “…any citizen has the same right that a white citizen has to make and enforce contracts.” How does this apply in a shopping context? Well, a store that sells clothing, for example, is in effect offering to make a “contract” with you. It’s offering to sell the clothes. You’re accepting this “contract” when you walk up the register to pay. In a restaurant setting, the restaurant is offering a “contract” to sit down and eat. By doing that, you’re accepting their offer. These are the kinds of contracts the law refers to.
Discrimination like this occurs far more often than most realize. I’m currently representing a black female client in a lawsuit against a major mall in Georgia after she was kicked out, and then banned for years, for allegedly shoplifting. The accusation was completely false. Even the police officer who responded to the call agreed with my client. She was terribly embarrassed, and the mall’s no-trespassing order has prevented her from shopping at the largest collection of nice stores in her part of the state. It’s also affected her family’s ability to shop as well. She is forbidden from joining them or friends on weekends when they go shopping or dining at the mall. So it’s affected her in a significant way. In small or mid-size communities, malls are often the center of community activity and socializing.
I’ve represented individuals and families in a number of similar situations. To further illustrate the kind of humiliation that race-based mistreatment can lead to, here’s a list of recent examples:
- A family that purchased an Easter outfit for their toddler was followed by a store security guard, who then wrongly accused them of shoplifting. The guard stereotyped the entire family based on their race and humiliated them in front of a large crowd as they attempted to redeem a coupon for a free gift based on their purchase. The guard dumped the contents, made insulting remarks in front of other shoppers, and dumped the grandmother’s purse onto a counter while threatening to have them arrested. A jury returned a verdict of $1,056,000.00.
- A mall banned white shoppers from returning after the shoppers objected to the way black customers were being treated by mall security guards. The mall wound up banning both the black customers and the white guests who objected to the racist treatment they witnesses.
- A popular electronic store was sued after it falsely accused a man of stealing a laptop. He was one of many customers in the store, but the only black shopper. The store called the police and they went to his home, where he freely allowed them to search his home, car and anywhere else the police wanted to look. He was shocked. As it turned out, the accusation was completely false and the thief was one of the other shoppers.
- A woman attempted to return to a store at closing time after realizing, once in the parking lot, that she’d left her keys near the cash register. When she approached the door, a manager shouted out that she just wanted to rob them, and that he knew “her type” and she needed to get out. They then called the police
- African-American diners at a restaurant were ordered to prepay for their meal because, according to police that were called by the restaurant, “three African-American teenagers had left without paying the day before.”
- A shopper was detained at a national discount store after a security guard falsely accused her of being someone who had been passing bad checks at the store. There was no basis whatsoever for the accusation.
- A shopper was ordered to leave her purse and rolling cart outside because, according to a store clerk and the police that were called, things sometimes went missing when the shopper was in the store. Again, there was no factual evidence to support any of that, and the evidence showed that the shopper was being stereotyped based on her race.
- A family sued after being hustled to the back of a restaurant, near the bathrooms, despite being asked to sit in the front of the restaurant near the windows. Evidence showed that this restaurant chain routinely sat customers of certain races in the most undesirable sections in the restaurant.
These cases typically arise after a business has engaged in the same conduct over and over, making it clear that it isn’t simply an occasional misunderstanding. It’s why the law exists. Just as some supervisors hold prejudices that affect employees in the workplace, some business owners hold prejudices that affect customers. The law forbids both, and allows victims of discrimination in the workplace and in the community to recover substantial damages.
Talk to an experienced discrimination and civil rights lawyer if you have a question, or if you’ve been the victim of this kind of discrimination. The law allows victims of discrimination by customers of businesses to recover substantial damages.